CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A little over a year ago, Georgia Jacquez Lewis wrote a check to become the first woman to donate to Hermanas Latina, a giving circle that aims to smooth the path to college for Latino youth in North Carolina.
With that contribution, Lewis continued on a familiar path – that of trailblazer.
Growing up as the fourth of six kids on a family farm in northern New Mexico, Lewis was the first in her family to attend college, and returned to school to receive her law degree at age 53.
She also was the first Hispanic to serve on a board of elections in North Carolina, she co-founded the Mecklenburg County Hispanic/Latino Lawyers Bar, and was the only lawyer in the state to belong simultaneously to the Young Lawyers and Senior Lawyers divisions of the state Bar Association.
“That’s just my makeup,” says Lewis, who lives in Charlotte. “That’s just who I am. I just do things.”
So it’s not surprising she was willing to be the first supporter of an effort to provide the same opportunities she’s had to young Latinos.
Hermanas Latina is a giving circle started last year whose members each donate $150 a year that is then pooled and given to the Tomorrow Fund for Hispanic Students, a fund at the Triangle Community Foundation.
In its first year, the fund awarded $13,000 to each of three North Carolina colleges, which use the money either to help Hispanic students with school-related expenses, or to improve the college experience for Hispanics.
“I guess I feel like I’m the one who gains from it,” says Lewis of her desire to help.
Lewis grew up on a ranch, where the kids chipped in with the chores and her mother ran the farm and household while Lewis’ father was gone for weeks at a time taking the family’s sheep to summer and winter ranges.
Her mother’s hard work and giving spirit were an inspiration, Lewis says.
“When people came to her house, she always welcomed them with open arms,” Lewis says.
She followed in her mother’s footsteps of caretaking by become a social worker after college.
She worked in a child welfare department in New Mexico and as a juvenile court counselor after moving to North Carolina with her new husband.
After going back to school to become a legal assistant and working in a lawyer’s office, Lewis became a magistrate and went on to be the director of a dispute settlement program.
And at age 53, with the encouragement of the oldest of her five children, Lewis enrolled in law school at N.C. Central University in Durham.
She has practiced law in Charlotte ever since, focusing primarily on immigration law, trusts and estates and volunteering her time on behalf of those less fortunate, including the homeless and refugees.
Most recently, she started Emerging Latina Leadership Advocates, or ELLA, to help Latina women get more involved in leadership positions in their communities.
“My experience is that they don’t have confidence enough to apply to boards or to get involved,” she says.
And now, by supporting Hermanas Latina, Lewis is giving a boost to the next generation of Latinos.
For all this hard work, Lewis has earned many honors, including the Women’s Equality Day Award from the Charlotte Women’s Business Owners, and the Circle of Excellence Award from Leadership Charlotte, and she has been inducted into the Charlotte Women’s History Hall of Fame.
But while she is appreciative of those honors, her personal barometer of success is different.
“Having lived a life where people love you and remember you and feeling like you’ve done some good is what success means to me,” Lewis says.